How to Onboard and Manage Your First Freelance Client

 In Business

You’ve taken all the steps you can muster in order to start getting paid work as a freelance creative. You did some soul-searching and built out a nice portfolio, you set up a presence on social media and let everyone know you’re available for hire, and you’ve reached out to your current network about potential leads.

But then something strange happens.

An email hits your inbox. It’s a potential client — A real life person who wants to pay you money for your talents! “Hey (your name), your uncle’s ex wife’s nephew told me you’re freelancing and I have a project I’d like to hire you for.” Never has such a mundane sentence stricken such fear into your heart, as suddenly you’re hit with the realization that you have NO IDEA WHAT TO DO!

I’m here to assuage your fears with some insight into my own client management and onboarding process, from the first client contact all the way to closing a project out and receiving your final payment. (Disclaimer: There are about a million ways to do this, and this is just the process that works best in my experience!)

First contact.

So a potential client has reached out, and wants to initiate a project with you. At this point, it’s best to assume they’ve either not worked with a freelancer before, or at the very least are interested in hearing about how your specific process works so they have some insight into what it’ll be like if they hire you.

Here’s my process as I outline it to clients, which by no coincidence is also the sequence of the next sections in this post:

  • Discovery
  • Project quote
  • Contract and down payment
  • Project and revisions
  • Final payment and deliverables

Time for discovery.

The discovery process is different for every creative and for every type of project, but the general crux of it is that I’m aiming to assess the client’s needs and expectations, whether I’m a good fit to work with them, and the actual scope of the project itself so that I can quote it properly.

As an illustrator, most of my projects are typically small enough that I initiate the discovery process as early as I can, before the project itself is even under contract, to suss out the details and move forward quickly. This can be an exchange of a few emails, a phone call, or maybe an in-person meeting if it’s a local client. In the case of a larger client, or a longer-term high dollar project, I expect discovery to be a journey of multiple steps that I will often bill for as part of my services. Since this is your first project, I doubt that will be a problem you have to tackle just yet.

So what do you need to ask a client during the discovery process? Try to imagine you’re starting their project right this second, and think through what the first questions you’d have for them are. Those are the best questions to both help you quote the job, and to aid the client in some introspection. What is the due date for the project? How many illustrations/designs/deliverables will there be? Do you have any stylistic references for what you’d like this to look like? Does your company have a brand style guide or standards I’ll need to be in accordance with? What’s the budget for this project? Will you require licensing for ongoing release of the work I make? Am I allowed to use this project in my portfolio upon completion? Who are the people involved in final approval of the deliverables? These are just a few of the most common ones I see, but tailor yours to the specific project at hand.

Not as scary as it seems – the project quote.

With all the information learned in your discovery process, you should know enough to comfortably quote the project. Everyone quotes differently, but the simplest way is to take your desired hourly income from the job, multiply it by your estimated number of hours to complete the project, then add a little on top as a buffer (in case things take longer than you expect). In the next step when we put together the contract, we’ll be sure to include language that prevents the scope of the project from getting out of hand after it’s underway. If you’re at a complete loss for what to charge, there are a lot of great resources online like the AOI that can help as you get your footing.

So you have your dollar amount, but how do you send it? If it’s a casual client or small job, I often save myself time by just sending an email with the amount. For most jobs, however, I build out a proper itemized quote on a branded PDF that I send over as an attachment. I use ZipBooks for my project quotes and invoicing, but there are other great resources like FreshBooks and Bonsai available as well. Do your research and figure out which works best for you.

The contract and initial invoice.

Why did I pair these two together? It’s because typically I send both at the same time. The general terms of my contract (revision cap, licensing, due date) were already discussed with the client back in the discovery process so they shouldn’t be a surprise, and if I’m at the point where I’m putting together a contract, then that means the client has accepted my quote and is ready to roll.

There are a wealth of resources for how to write a contract, many targeted specifically to freelancers. The important things you want to ensure your contract has are: the parties involved, a description of the project scope, the compensation you’ll receive and when it’s due, the image licensing and copyright info, project milestones and due dates, a revision cap (with fees if the client exceeds that cap), and a project kill fee. I highly recommend requesting up to 50% of the project rate up-front before the work begins. For more info I recommend looking at places like the AIGA, Skillshare, or LegalZoom.

The invoicing will be easy at this point. If you’ve used one of the aforementioned software suites to build out your project quote, you can usually convert it into an invoice with one click. If you’ve requested a percentage down payment before work begins (which you should have), split the invoice into two with the first one being that amount. If you’re billing with your own homemade invoice template, you can use resources like PayPal or Stripe to process payments.

The project and its inevitable revisions.

This should be the most straightforward part and the one that requires the least explanation. If this client is working with you, it’s because they like your art! Do your thing, and be sure to maintain good clarity of communication along the way.

Final payment and deliverables.

You’re in the home stretch! The client has approved all your project revisions and is looking to you for your expertise in how to package the files so they can use them. I usually specify in my contract that files will not be supplied to the client until final payment is received, but depending upon the project type and timeline I realize that isn’t always a luxury you have. You should know depending upon the client and project type what file types and format they’ll need, so do your best to cover all bases.

I try to make a point to back up their approved project files as long as I can, so when I get that inevitable email three months after project close saying, “Hey, we just realized we need our illustration in X format”, I’m able to deliver. Sometimes that unexpected point of contact also opens the door for a new project, too!

Lastly, be sure to use the project closing as a final circling of the wagons to recap what you’ve accomplished during the project, what you’ve learned, and what a pleasure it was to work with your client. Especially when a client has a busy life, receiving a quick reminder about all the value you brought them is a huge plus.

Breaking apart the steps involved in a freelance project can really help make it less intimidating. If you don’t already, I strongly recommend using any of a number of free project management applications (my favorite is Trello). Once you’ve got multiple projects running in tandem, having a checklist of the steps you need to undertake on each project will keep you from going crazy and will impress your clients with your attentiveness. If you’re managing your projects well, they won’t even realize you have other clients because they’ll feel so well taken care of.

If you’ve recently completed your first freelance project, how did it go? If you’ve been doing this for a while, how does your workflow differ from mine? I’d love to talk!

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